Egomaniacal employees

Find yourself humming the classic tune You’re So Vain around a certain colleague? Got a boss who’s absolutely arrogant? Here’s what you need to know about dealing with narcissists on the job.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji’s job could best be described as pretty awful. She was in her late 20s working for an oil and gas company. Her boss at the time made coming into the office rather — we’ll be polite — daunting. “He took credit for everything we did,” says the Calgary-based accountant, recalling one of her first gigs. In fact, he was so bad, says Gupta-Sunderji, that employees “gossiped about him around the watercooler.” She remembers doing her best to cope back then by sucking up to her manager, which ultimately eased tensions but caused her colleagues to resent her. The self-absorbed boss was eventually moved to another department, where his cocky behaviour led to trouble with his own superiors. When he was given increasingly less high-profile positions, he eventually quit.

Today, Gupta-Sunderji is a leadership expert at Turning Managers Into Leaders and repeatedly hears stories about people who “think they know it all.” That’s her code phrase for narcissists — they’re quite often found in the workplace, usually in senior positions (some — ahem — even govern nations), and can seriously wreak havoc on their employers, employees and fellow colleagues. “They destroy team dynamics. They need to be the star.”

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, people with narcissistic  personality disorder exaggerate their achievements, seek constant admiration, lack empathy and take advantage of others to get ahead. They have an inflated sense of their own importance and don’t appreciate it when they’re not given the adoration they believe they deserve. They’re preoccupied with success and power, and have extreme self-entitlement. This personality disorder affects up to about 6% of the general population, but many more have a subclinical version. In his book The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age, psychotherapist Joseph Burgo says that narcissism exists on a spectrum, and most of us have some narcissistic tendencies. He says about one in 20 people fall into the “extreme narcissism” category, “in which these self-absorbed characteristics result in destructive behaviour that harms not only the individual but everyone around him or her, including friends, family and coworkers.” “All of us have some degree of self-interest,” adds Gary Direnfeld, a social worker in Georgina, Ont. “Where it becomes a problem is when these traits are enacted at the expense of others.”

According to Direnfeld, narcissists were either overly indulged or ignored as children. The trait seems to run in families — conceited personalities may be attributed to nature or nurture, or both. Underneath it all, though, he and Gupta-Sunderji say these people are deeply insecure, and they seek glory and success to compensate.

As adults, the self-obsessed breeze into jobs by virtue of their exceptional ability to lay it on thick — they’re typically charmers who talk a good game. “They make a great initial impression, as they’re very confident and very charismatic,” says Gupta-Sunderji. “They are very good at situations that require gloss and glitter,” she adds, meaning they’re the folks who always seem to nail big presentations, land important clients and host fabulous events. Since success matters deeply to narcissists, they stay focused on their goals and will pretty much do anything to prosper. “They don’t dither around like a lot of us do,” says Nina Brown, a professor in the department of counselling and human services at Old Dominion University in Virginia, and author of Working with the Self-Absorbed. “They can be found in all walks of life, but you’ll likely find them at high levels because they’re willing to work hard and go after what they want.” But longevity isn’t their strong suit. “While some narcissists may rise to the top, their reign doesn’t seem to be long-lived,” says Direnfeld.

That’s because these people eventually crash. “They will take the credit and throw others under the bus,” says Direnfeld. Resentment among colleagues grows, and the rumour mill erupts with complaints. They will also retaliate for slights, both real and imagined. A forgotten thank-you or a poorly worded email, for example, can cause “narcissistic wounds,” which Direnfeld says can make the conceited feel “cut with a knife.” To strike back, they excel at making snippy comments (“You’re on time, for once,” when a colleague is late getting to a meeting) and backhanded compliments that they utter with a smile and claim to be a joke if challenged.

MANAGING THE SELF-CENTRED

If you’ve fallen for a dazzling narcissist at a job interview, you probably won’t know it right off the bat. But if a staff member seems flawless and seems to win at every turn yet team morale is slipping, that’s a red flag. “Pay attention to the grapevine — it’s a very important tool,” says Gupta-Sunderji. If your trusted employees say they’re being stepped on by the company superstar, you might have a narcissist on your hands. The thing is, you have to be careful how you handle these folks. “Do not call them out and don’t label them,” warns Brown.

Narcissists are unaware of their impact on others, which is why they deny any accusations with fervour. Instead, create a work environment that praises and rewards cooperative behaviour. Be specific about how you want teamwork to unfold and model what sharing the credit should look like. “It’s like dealing with a 10-year-old. You can’t be vague with a 10-year-old,” says Brown.

WORKING WITH THE CONCEITED

Colleagues with a narcissist in the cubicle next door, take note: you’re out of luck. Your best bet is to manage your reactions to the boaster’s arrogant ways. Don’t bother trying to change his or her behaviour, and avoid inflicting wounds (and conflict) by taking care with casual comments. To combat a narcissist’s signature sniping, calmly call them on it. Try, “That sounded sarcastic; did you mean it that way?” Gupta-Sunderji says this can put the sniper on notice that you’re not an easy target. Don’t forget to document your accomplishments so your manager knows what you’ve done, even when your self-important colleague sidles up to take credit.

HELP! MY BOSS IS AN EGOMANIAC

Not to sound alarmist, but run for the hills or hunker down if you suspect your manager has narcissistic tendencies, says Brown. But if you don’t get out of Dodge and choose to ride it out, you may need to do what Gupta-Sunderji calls positive stroking to bolster your boss’s tender ego. She also advises against reporting narcissistic behaviour to HR — your concerns will likely be ignored. Don’t forget — you’re dealing with a charmer who can and will talk circles around you if he or she feels even the slightest bit wronged or threatened. If you wait it out, you might just be in luck: for most narcissists, the office can become an increasingly uncomfortable place. Many eventually pack it up and move on, blaming others for their departure. Most are unaware of the torment they’ve caused their colleagues.

It’s easy to demonize the workplace narcissist, particularly if one or more of them have made work difficult in the past. But Brown suggests we look inward too. We all have a part of ourselves that is self-absorbed and undeveloped, she says. Identify your own narcissistic tendencies and check to see if you can’t be more empathetic and share the credit. We can’t change others and we can’t always alter the culture at our workplaces, but we can push ourselves to work against our inner narcissist.